Targeting the significant homeless population in northwest Harris County—including along FM 1960 between Hwy. 249 and I-45—the Harris County sheriff’s office created the Homeless Outreach Team in November.
HCSO has dedicated two deputies, a sergeant and one lieutenant to the HOT, which is a private-public partnership between HCSO and local nonprofits. The program’s goal is to divert the homeless population from jail cells by connecting them with social services, HCSO Lt. Robert Henry said.
“We wanted to look at a different way to help people rather than to criminalize them,” Henry said. “This program will get people off the street and into temporary housing.”
The HOT will also address the intersection of homelessness and mental illness, Henry said. Officers in the program have been trained to recognize and respond to mental illness and have taken a 30-day course in advanced first aid from Cypress Creek EMS, he said.
“Isn’t it time that we decriminalize mental illness and homelessness and start treating them for what they really are?” Henry said.
Helping the homeless
Although homelessness has declined overall in the Greater Houston area, officials said the problem persists in unincorporated areas of Harris County.
FM 1960 features the largest concentration of homelessness in the county— especially near Cutten and Kuykendahl roads—where panhandling and pitched tents cause mobility concerns, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said.
Economic factors and the gentrification of Houston’s inner city have pushed the homeless issue out to Spring and Klein, said Carole Little, Northwest Assistance Ministry’s president and CEO.
“There’s been a tremendous migration from inner city to the suburbs as rent has increased, and the inner city started to renovate and taxes were raised,” Little said. “Rent goes up, and [residents] end up migrating to where they can afford housing. [FM]1960 has seen a tremendous increase in people living below [the] poverty line. And many people are one crisis [away] from homelessness. The No. 1 reason people become homeless is economics.”
Looking to address the growing need, the HOT’s two deputies will be tasked with meeting homeless people, building a rapport by learning their stories and assessing what each individual needs to transition into temporary housing. Homeless people will only be arrested if they are committing a crime, Henry said.
The program provides the homeless an opportunity to meet with civilian service providers. HCSO has partnered with several organizations—including Spring and Klein nonprofits Northwest Assistance Ministries and Hope Haven—to provide immediate services in areas, such as mental health, substance abuse and assistance for veterans.
However, some homeless people may just need help procuring an ID card to enter a shelter or apply for jobs, HCSO Deputy Thomas Gilliland said.
In just the first two weeks of HOT’s implementation, HCSO deputies helped transition 18 homeless people into temporary housing, Henry said.
He expects this number to grow as the program becomes more ingrained in the community. The HCSO will track the number of homeless people who are contacted, the number of people who accept the proposition and which social service they were diverted to.
“Isn’t it time that we decriminalize mental illness and homelessness and start treating them for what they really are?”
—Lt. Robert Henry, Harris County sheriff's office
Refining the tactics
The HOT represents a different approach to law enforcement in Harris County where officers attempt to improve the community as opposed to only enforcing the law, Henry said.
Other law enforcement agencies, such as the Harris County Precinct 4 constable’s office, will interact differently with the homeless in northwest Harris County.
“We’ve written tickets and arrested them for [outstanding] warrants,” Herman said. “Now we’re going to use the [Homeless Outreach Team] as a resource. What we found is that you get them out of the road, and they’re back in the road the next day. It’s a public safety issue.”
The HOT is a natural progression from the Crisis Intervention Response Team, which was founded in April to divert mentally ill people who face minor charges into treatment rather than county jail cells, Henry said.
Following an August meeting of HCSO officials in which Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman showed his support for the HOT program, Henry said he began planning the program’s rollout.
Although the number of homeless individuals in Harris and Fort Bend counties have decreased by 46 percent from 2011 to 2015, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless individuals in Harris County Jail decreased by only 20.4 percent during that timeframe.
Saving tax dollars
The HOT program received $110,000 from private donations to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Foundation. The donations allowed the agency to purchase a van and a utility task vehicle that can reach wooded or wet areas. The program’s only costs to taxpayers are the salaries of the participating officers.
The program is also financially beneficial to taxpayers, who are footing the bill for Harris County jails, Henry said.
“Receiving three tickets or spending a night in jail won’t stop them from doing the thing that’s feeding them,” said Kristyn Stillwell, president and executive director of Hope Haven. “By offering these services, it kind of circumvents the system and fixes it from the back door. It took these HOT teams to get the support we need on the streets.”